Dear reader, this is an exercise in imagination. Think of a residential neighborhood — Seattle’s Central District, if you have been there. The houses are all linked through a web of families, artists, community builders and people supporting one another in the rituals that, when repeated, build not only a sense of place but belonging. Some houses have one family in them, while others have an artist resident who rents a bedroom yet their creations sprawl the entire inside.
Some of the residences have extra room to live and share and gathering space for meetings or shows. Human ecosystems, subsets of natural ecosystems, need multiple points of contact for the whole to thrive.
Between covid-19 and deep displacement forces that have pushed out residents of Seattle’s historically Black neighborhood and others like it, places for connection might sound like castles in the sky. Yet Wa Na Wari — a community center and arts organization — has, this year, bloomed into this aforementioned type of a multi-use community model that brings together arts, anti-displacement practices and community-building strategies in a central place.
Per one sentence on its website, “Wa Na Wari creates space for Black ownership, possibility, and belonging through art, historic preservation, and connection.”
It is many things: an actualized gallery in an ancestral home; an organization that amplifies and dedicates itself to encouraging Black artists in all forms, traditional and experimental; a feeling of home, belonging and joy.
The Wa Na Wari story
Wa Na Wari is in a house that belonged to co-founder Inye Wokoma’s grandmother. Shifting it from a residential space to a homey art gallery did two things: One, it aided in the persistence of a Black cultural legacy in a neighborhood whose historically Black community is continuously being priced and pushed out of their homes. Second, it created a space dedicated to celebrating and amplifying the brilliance and innovation of local Black artists and creatives. Barely two years old, having opened in April 2019, Wa Na Wari has already made a lasting impact on Seattle’s arts and culture landscape.
To completely own the home, co-founder Elisheba Johnson says they have a capital campaign going. Of the $2.2-million goal, they have raised a quarter of a million so far and are confident they will meet the goal in a couple years. Johnson points out that while they have received community support for their work, even support from the city, there are institutional philanthropy organizations that privilege longevity, which advantages organizations who have capital to stay open for a long time before reaching out for grant support.
“You can’t tap into some of those institutional dollars until you’ve been around five years,” Johnson said about the inequity of philanthropy. It ends up being a Catch-22. But Wa Na Wari has gained the trust and support of both the arts and Black communities. “People believe in the work we are doing and we are showing that we are doing the work, so I think people will come.”
Wa Na Wari hosts and sponsors events in partnership with other established organizations. Prior to covid-19, Wa Na Wari held regular in-person artist talks, concerts, evenings full of dance and discussion, continuously creating a thorough vibrance, resounding with people enjoying one another’s company.
covid meant Wa Na Wari had to halt their gatherings, which had been so central to the sense of home they aimed to establish. But Johnson says virtual programming has allowed them to expand audiences from coast to coast and allowed for cross-country partnerships.
They’ve also built an outdoor stage and recently hosted a performance by Northwest Tap. People did attend, masked and socially distant. Some neighborhood residents used the opportunity to walk their dogs and stop by the stage to enjoy much-needed lively entertainment.
“Providing arts and cultural entertainment in the neighborhood will be much safer for people to think ‘Oh, I can just go down the street for an hour and that sounds good,’” Johnson said.
Wa Na Wari has rallied to amplify Black artists creatively while in-person gathering is restricted and discouraged.
“Wa Na Wari is the physical space, but we also serve that community and the broader Black community as well,” Johnson said.
They recently launched a care package sourced by Black artists, have opened an artist-in-residence program so artists can still use the space while it is closed to the public and continue to stream live and recorded concerts.
Challenging land-use policies
Part of Wa Na Wari’s broader reach is its anti-displacement efforts — namely, an approach to change the complicated matrix of restrictive land-use policies. Along with other organizations, Wa Na Wari is spearheading a project called the Central Area Cultural Ecosystem 21st Century (cace 21), which they began in fall 2019.
Wokoma says there is a natural fit between the needs of the neighborhood’s Black community, the needs of cultural workers and the model that Wa Na Wari has crafted.
“Folks who own homes in the neighborhood are facing increasing pressure because of the rising cost of just owning a home when it comes to taxation and maintenance and all the other things,” Wokoma said. He realizes many homeowners might be “space rich” but “cash poor.” Stuck between rising costs and the competitive allure of the neighborhood, they move and choose to leave altogether. For many who may have raised their families and purchased their first homes here, the tradeoff of their life legacy and affordability is painful. Then there are cultural workers who are cash poor and space poor, struggling to find affordable cultural spaces to practice and showcase their craft.
Bringing these two groups together could prove beneficial to keeping families in place while also sustaining a thriving cultural community that has been increasingly under threat as economic forces have made Seattle more attractive for the wealthy and inaccessible to everyone else.
For both its arts work and broader land-use organizing, Wa Na Wari has borrowed inspiration from Houston-based Project Row Houses, a self-proclaimed “community platform” that recognizes the interconnectedness of arts, culture and an embedded urban sense of place. In the early 1990s, a group of Black artists in Houston envisioned a different reality for a block of “shotgun” houses. Their vision turned unwanted properties into a thriving cultural space for artists, small business owners and young mothers — a revolutionary, systematic effort for change.
In central Seattle, Johnson says, “We are paying ‘market rate’ rent in a neighborhood that is unaffordable, so that is kind of the difference. It’s not just about getting stuff that is cheap and revitalizing it. We are actually trying to claim space for folks to make sure they still have space here as the development keeps going.”
As Wokoma puts it, Wa Na Wari exists “as community solutions to combat displacement and to anchor Black residency, homeowners — anchor Black families and Black culture — in our historic neighborhood.” The organization is a blueprint and an exemplar of what is possible if restrictive zoning and land-use policies are reorganized against displacement.
Wa Na Wari’s lawful journey to become an art gallery involved a rigorous process to change their zoning status.
To operate a community center and cultural space in a single-family home, Wa Na Wari had to apply for a “change of use” permit, which was arduous and time-consuming. Finally, their application was approved — the Wa Na Wari house was designated under “administrative conditional” zoning.
If other homeowners want to try a similar model, though, Wokoma warns, it is not a straightforward task. “They’d have to hire a lawyer and engineers and architects, and that is a huge structural investment in something that is not guaranteed. [The] city could deny the permit at any point in time,” Wokoma said.
If it is sought, the first step is for current homeowners to gain awareness and knowledge about their options to combat their own or others’ displacement. Wokoma says cace 21’s work will follow a multi-year timeline, starting with this first step and continuing to actualization.
Further, unless there is a magical moratorium on mortgages, it is likely that, in the time it takes to organize, homeowners will still be at risk of losing their homes.
“Our policy education work is designed to empower homeowners to stay anchored,” Wokoma said. He elaborated that cace 21 also hopes to provide homeowners with solutions that are not heavily policy reliant.
The individual-level empowerment, though, will happen in tandem with pushing for policy change. In early 2021, cace organizers will be surveying homeowners to see who is still in the neighborhood and get real data on demographics.
“Then it’s a deeper dive into collecting data around the real, lived experiences and challenges, needs and priorities of Black homeowners,” Wokoma said. The data collection will be thorough and serve as a tool to organize, engage with residents of the CD and provide a “snapshot” of the community’s needs in real time.
It may take until 2022 or 2023 to get enough data, but the plan is to educate and engage homeowners on what they can do, Wokoma said, while also using solid data to start advocating for land-use reform at the Washington state capitol. State-level policy and legislation trickle down to the county and then city-level municipal zoning codes that eventually dictate who has access to what kinds of properties and how they can use them.
“It’s always coming out of the community to reach the imagination barrier when it comes to policy and imagining how our society should be ... and then figuring out how you interject those ideas into law, into government, into sort of the bureaucratic norms that govern our society,” Wokoma said.
Bringing values forward
Wokoma grew up in the Central District. When I first met him in 2019, he told me about his memories of the neighborhood before economic forces began to shift the demographics and whiten the historically Black neighborhood. He told me about the way sound filled the air: Music from neighbors wafted around the blocks and conversations chirped out of second-story windows.
Wa Na Wari brings some semblance of community to preserve the spirit, joy and values of that Black community. But Wokoma doesn’t expect the cultural experience he remembers growing up to return.
“In large part that experience, for better or for worse, was a result of a lot of racist systems — so, you know, systems that created geographic Black communities, concentrated ethnic communities,” he said.
Wokoma points to migration patterns that brought Black people to Seattle. There were racist systems in the south that many families wanted to escape, only to be redlined in the seemingly more “progressive” cities they moved to. Without those systems, Wokoma imagines Black people would not have come to Seattle, and if they had, they would have been able to settle wherever they wanted to. In that way, the historically Black Central District was a community built by systemic oppression.
“But being marginalized and oppressed in the larger scope of the way the power operates in the society was not the defining feature of our experience,” Wokoma said of his childhood. “We created an experience that reflected the things that we wanted out of life.”
The past never returns, and our experiences are not just one thing. That is the nature of time, change and life.
“My expectation is how we take the values and the things that are familiar to us and that we treasure that … and make them a part of the future,” he said. “Our contribution is anchored in our culture, our experience, our history.”
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at [email protected]. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more of the Dec. 23-29, 2020 issue.